On the Set of 'His Dark Materials': Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ruth Wilson Bring Fantasy World to Life

His Dark Materials_BTS - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of HBO

BBC and HBO's ambitious adaptation required a promising young star (Dafne Keen), massive set (built in Cardiff) and some bold names to adapt Philip Pullman's trilogy.

Inside a former factory a short drive from the Welsh capital of Cardiff, locations from the magical, alternative world of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials have been continuously designed, built, knocked down and rebuilt since early 2018. The 250,000-square-foot Wolf Studios Wales — ironically, the former site of a Nippon factory, which made glass for traditional TVs and closed in 2005 (blame the rise of flat-screen TVs) — was opened specifically to house HBO/BBC's ambitiously grandiose retelling of the author's trilogy. Adapted by Jack Thorne, the show centers on a young orphan girl moving through a world in which all humans have animal companions that represent an external soul. The eight-episode first season, which stars Ruth Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, James McAvoy and Dafne Keen in the central role of Lyra Belacqua, debuted Nov. 4 on HBO.

Lord Asriel's laboratory beneath the Arctic's Northern Lights, the Magisterium's brutalist headquarters, the monstrous child prison Bolvangar and Panserbjorn Palace — home of armored ice bears — are among the show's far-flung settings that were built inside six stages (the biggest of which is taller than Pinewood's famed Bond stage).

"It's part Star Wars, part large animated worlds and grand characters, but then it's grounded in a sort of reality that we can half recognize, with Oxford and areas that we're familiar with," says Wilson, who plays Mrs. Coulter (described as the "mother of all evil" in the books), speaking to THR while she's wrapped up in a padded coat awaiting her next scene.

"I think Mrs. Coulter is going to be one of the all-time great iconic television roles," says producer Jane Tranter, who had set her sights on bringing His Dark Materials to screen the second she returned to the U.K. after a stint heading up BBC Worldwide's L.A. arm. Tranter — co-founder of the show's production banner Bad Wolf with fellow former BBC exec Julie Gardner — says HBO's most famed fantasy series helped create the space where His Dark Materials, which had a disappointing feature-length splash in 2007, could get the TV green light.

"Proving that you can create a TV arena as big as the novel arena was a direct result of Game of Thrones," Tranter says, acknowledging that the small screen "wasn't ready" when New Line's The Golden Compass, based on the first Dark Materials novel, was released. "And we've also got Game of Thrones to thank for the idea that you can make TV that relies very heavily on the craft of CGI experts."

The hardest — and most costly — element of the CGI puzzle was bringing to life the daemons, the external animal companions that interact with and accompany citizens. Rather than have the actors talk to floating tennis balls, puppeteers were used, before the visual effects were added on top by VFX giant Framestore (which won its first Oscar for The Golden Compass). Helping oversee the entire world was production designer Joel Collins, who had previously spent seven years working on Netflix's Black Mirror. "A lot of what's happening in the books is nostalgia, so I tapped into that," he says, adding that he used a lot of "restraint" when it came to VFX. "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should."

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.